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Anyone who’s tried to shift those extra pounds knows that losing weight is hard work.
Furthermore, even if you’ve reached your goals, making sure the weight doesn’t creep back on presents a new challenge.
We’re bombarded with all sort of solutions – from crash diets to weight-loss pills – but the fact is the only way to lose weight and keep it off is a sustainable lifestyle change.
This is something meditation can help with.
Although direct research into the influence of meditation on weight loss is limited, there are scientifically-backed reasons why meditation is a supportive accompaniment to a healthier lifestyle.
The relationship between stress and weight gain is key to understanding why meditation can help you lose weight.
Stress and Weight Management
In the short term, stress tends to make us less hungry.
Our stress response evolved early in our evolutionary history and it helped us survive through the “flight or fight” mechanism.
When we get stressed, our body reacts as if are faced with an imminent threat, releasing stress hormones and redirecting our energy so we are primed to either fight for our lives, or run away.
In this emergency mode, our digestive system is starved of energy, and as something that isn’t immediately essential to our survival, our appetite tends to drop.
The problem comes when stress isn’t a rare feature in our lives, but constant and long-term.
In this case, it isn’t weight loss we can expect, but stubborn weight gain.
The Problem with Cortisol
Adrenaline, which floods our bodies in moments of stress, fires us up and decreases our appetites.
Unfortunately, however, this isn’t the whole story.
Once the adrenaline has worn off, another stress hormone (known as cortisol) tends to hang around (1).
It’s this hormone which tells our body to replenish its food supply.
This made perfect sense all those years ago when one of our ancestors had just expended an awful lot of energy sprinting away from a slavering lion, but in the modern world, it’s somewhat less helpful.
If we get stressed out at work every day, that spike in hunger still arrives even if we’ve done nothing more active than reading angry emails.
If we’re stressed out all the time, cortisol is going to make us feel in constant need of a big energy boost, leading to cravings and unhealthy choices – especially as the hormone can also create drops in blood sugar.
Lack of Sleep
Stress has a direct impact on sleep, making it harder to get a restful and refreshing eight hours as we lay awake worrying (2).
When our brains are in overdrive, slipping into a natural sleep is much harder, and the inability to sleep can be a source of stress itself.
Apart from becoming fatigued and unable to concentrate, lack of sleep also makes us more likely to put on weight.
Not getting enough sleep at night has been linked to increased calorie consumption, less inclination to exercise, greater cravings for unhealthy foods and decreased the ability to make sensible, thoughtful decisions (3).
All of this adds up and makes even maintaining your current weight a challenge, let alone losing any of it.
It’s no surprise that frequent stress has a detrimental impact on our mental well-being.
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Not sleeping well and feeling constantly wound up can make us prone to low moods.
We also become anxious and find ourselves searching for comfort.
It’s hard making good decisions when we’re busy and stressed out and we seek solace in the foods we eat.
Food is a quick and easy way to make ourselves feel temporarily better – there’s a reason why it’s a cliche that the recently heartbroken cry into their ice cream.
Sugary and high-fat foods tend to be associated with good childhood memories, like getting cookies from a caring grandmother, or family celebrations.
So it’s no wonder that we rely on them when we are feeling down, and studies have shown that emotional eating drives weight gain (4).
Stress fuels us with a sense of urgency, which may be helpful when we are completing an important task, but is far less so when we need to think long-term.
It is the short-term thinking that puts us on crash diets.
We become stressed out about our weight, especially if the way we look is making us feel bad about ourselves, and want to solve the problem immediately.
This stress gives us focus and determination, leading to drastic changes.
Unfortunately, these drastic changes are only sustainable for a very short amount of time.
It’s how people who regularly overeat can go on a juice diet and lose three stone.
The problem is, once the diet is over and they resume “normal life”, putting all that weight back on is nearly inevitable because there’s been no commitment to a long-term change.
In order to lose weight successfully, rather than thinking about the next 6 months, we have to think about the next 6 years.
Stress makes it very difficult to think in this way, not considering the fact that although we can lose weight quickly, the only way it’s staying off is if we change our lives permanently.
This short-term thinking affects us in other ways.
When we’re rushed off our feet, choosing the unhealthy fast-food option makes short-term sense, because we’re too stressed to do anything else.
Reducing stress allows making the small but powerful changes we need to avoid this kind of behavior.
Stress and Fat
It’s theorized that stress hormones influence our physiology by decreasing our metabolism and making it harder to burn fat because this guarantees a steady supply of energy.
Retaining fat may have contributed to our survival in previous ages when there was a real threat of starvation.
In times our ancestors would have found chronically stressful, such as facing an invading rival or moving from their homes due to an environmental danger (such as an erupting volcano), having a sustained energy supply could have been the difference between life and death.
In the modern Western world, however, this is far less helpful.
Our bodies work against any attempt to shift the pounds, even reducing our metabolic resting rate (a number of calories we burn each day without extra exercise) if we attempt to cut our calories dramatically.
So before a crash diet, we may have been able to burn 1800 calories a day simply to keep ourselves alive, but after the diet that could have gone down to 1500.
Alcohol and Stress
The annoying truth about losing weight is that alcohol really doesn’t help.
Not only does it provide an awful lot of empty calories, it also weakens our willpower so we find ourselves inhaling down a midnight feast.
Then, as a cherry on top of the cake, when we’re hungover all we want to eat are fat and carbs.
Many people use alcohol as a coping mechanism for stress, but even if we just have a couple of glasses of wine after a long day at work we’re adding over 400 unnecessary calories into our diet.
This all without filling us up or providing any nutritional value.
Alcohol may unwind us temporarily, but by decreasing the quality of our sleep it will actually contribute to our stress and unhappiness.
How does Meditation Help?
This all paints a pretty discouraging picture, especially considering that many of us live with what can be considered a high-stress lifestyle – whether it’s the busy professional mom or two-job working graduate.
This doesn’t mean, however, that our stress is dooming us to a life where we are eternally unhappy with our weight.
It would be unrealistic to imagine that we can completely eliminate stress from our lives – in fact, in small doses, stress can be a useful and motivating force – but we can drastically reduce it.
That grinding, unhealthy and well-being-destroying stress which makes it so much harder to lose weight can be managed simply by meditating every day.
How Meditation Reduces Stress
Meditation reduces our stress levels in various ways.
Firstly, it’s a way of becoming more deeply rested when sleep eludes us.
Sitting in meditation for twenty minutes provides us with a rest that is three times deeper than that achieved in sleep.
This makes us feel refreshed and energized, and therefore less likely to pick up a calorie-loaded caramel latte in search of an energy boost.
Having rested so deeply, our minds unwind and we regain our normal hormonal balance.
Levels of the troublesome cortisol have been shown to drop by up to a third in meditators.
Our cardiovascular health also improves.
Perhaps the most striking change that meditation brings about happens in our brains.
After just eight weeks of meditating regularly, brain scans have revealed observable changes in the structure of our minds which confirms the anecdotal evidence that meditation reduces stress (6).
This change is a physical reduction of the so-called “stress-centre” or our brain, known as the amygdala.
The amygdala is part of our reptilian brain, which appeared early in the evolution of humanity (before we even reached the “human” part) and controls our flight or fight response.
The reduction of the amygdala is accompanied by a thickening of our hippocampus, an area which controls our memory and emotions.
This strongly suggests that meditation allows us to be less at the mercy of a hair-trigger stress response.
Becoming More Aware
Meditation also helps us become more aware of our thoughts and actions, including those that relate to food.
For example, a research review showed that meditation can help with both binge eating and emotional eating (7).
We behave more rationally when we aren’t so stressed, and meditation lets us experience the world in a way that is less distorted by our fears and anxieties.
This means that we can enjoy the moment without being distracted by a mind buzzing with panic.
With this comes a greater appreciation and awareness of the things we are eating.
Emotional eating occurs when we choose to eat something for comfort, rather than because we are hungry.
Understanding these triggers makes them easier to control.
Self-esteem and Meditation
The film director David Lynch said of meditation that you become “more and more you”.
In the chaos of everyday life, we can lose touch with who we are and our confidence can take a beating.
Societal messages tell us that being overweight makes us lazy, unattractive and even worthless, and we can find ourselves internalizing these messages.
Low self-esteem is a barrier to making the right choices for our health: firstly, because we continue to take comfort in food, and, secondly, because we can become convinced that we aren’t worth the effort.
Learning to be confident and full of self-worth before losing 20 pounds will make weight-loss that little bit easier, and also be an incredibly positive change for your frame of mind.
The underestimated, but incredibly powerful, effect meditation can have is a “keystone habit”.
A lifestyle overhaul doesn’t happen overnight.
It’s the small changes, not the drastic ones, that make a difference over the long-term.
Even if we haven’t changed our diet yet, or started an exercise regime, simply by working meditation into our day and sticking with it, we’ve demonstrated an ability to accommodate a healthy habit.
If we can commit to twenty minutes of meditation, then a fifteen-minute workout doesn’t seem like that much of a stretch.
Then, we don’t want to undo all of the good work that exercise has done, so we pick fruit rather than cheesecake for dessert.
These choices, one by one, transform the way we think and act and make weight loss almost come naturally.
Because meditation makes us feel happier and more energized, making healthy choices suddenly seems like less of a challenge.
In this way, meditation has a knock-on effect and can be the foundation from which we change our lives.